TORONTO – A tendency to think in the short-term is an understandable by-product of this pandemic life. Nearly three months of shutdown have created an immense amount of upheaval, adding indefinite uncertainty to nearly every facet of existence.
You can’t really project a year or two down the road when you can’t be sure what tomorrow will bring, let alone next week or next month.
A consequence of all that is how the bigger picture becomes increasingly difficult to frame, and the holistic view is absolutely essential in understanding the current back-and-forth between Major League Baseball and its players.
Front and centre at this moment is the push by ownership to cut further into already reduced player salaries for the 2020 season, which the union is sensibly resisting. The latest economic proposal presented Tuesday – which differed from the 50-50 revenue split floated intentionally to sway public opinion – is a divisive structure in which the game’s highest-paid players take far sharper salary cuts than those on the lower-end of the pay-scale.
In effect, the game’s stars are being asked to subsidize the remainder of the roster, a tactic clearly designed to pit the players against one another. Creating wedges within the rank and file is an approach the owners used for years, from split union membership in the mid 1980s over pension and arbitration issues, to more recently, when they used resistance to an international draft to exact other gains.
As such, any player who isn’t royally pissed should be, regardless of the current circumstances. Putting Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Cole Hamels and Max Scherzer in a position where their objections will hurt younger players yet to make substantial money is straight-up cold.
For a team like the Toronto Blue Jays, which is weighted heavily toward players at the beginning of their careers and in a lower earning bracket, the ploy can be corrosive.
Any of their youngsters earning at or near the major-league minimum can look at the nearly $4 million Hyun-Jin Ryu would make under MLB’s latest proposal, and argue that the veteran lefty originally due $20 million should take the hit so they get their roughly $250,000-$270,000.
|PLAYERS||ORIGINAL SALARY||PROPOSED SALARY||PRO-RATED TOTAL|
|Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||$2,928,572||$1,787,899||$904,677|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||$579,300||$518,605||$262,414|
*What players on the Blue Jays 40-man roster would be paid in 2020 based on proposed thresholds, as reported by The Associated Press
That’s part of the strategy, to be sure, but so too is leaking the numbers, a ploy to paint the players as greedy in the midst of mass employment and economic devastation. To many who have lost jobs, even the prorated portion of a discounted minimum salary would seem like a windfall, so players are positioned to take the hit if things go haywire.
But that’s also short-term thinking, because the reality is the economic impact of COVID-19 isn’t likely to end this year, and it’s possible the ban on mass gatherings could extend into 2021.
If that does indeed play out and the revenue collapse extends indefinitely, anything agreed upon now will establish precedents for next season, when this entire cycle could repeat, only this time with an expiring collective bargaining agreement added to the backdrop.
Hence, the union must factor all that into the current talks, because every concession now only compounds down the road, a point Donald Fehr, the NHL Players’ Association executive director who for years prior led the MLBPA, made Tuesday during an appearance on Tim & Sid.
“You are obviously concerned about those things going forward and you have to guard against them as best you can,” Fehr replied when asked about givebacks now affecting NHL players in the future. “And if you can’t guard against them sufficiently, you don’t make an agreement. That’s basically what it comes down to.”
Easier said than done, of course, and given the current environment, it’s hard to risk real dollars for potential losses in the future. A significant portion of players can’t afford to simply take the salary advance they’ve received for April and May and call it a year.
That’s their pressure point, and Major League Baseball is clearly trying to exploit that.
At the same time, the owners can’t get too cute with this either.
Cash flow is a real issue for teams and while it’s easy to point to billionaire owners and expect them to cover the current crisis, well the wealthy don’t stay rich by recklessly throwing their dollars around.
Surely there’s a middle ground to be found, but Major League Baseball seems determined to go beyond fair and exact a significant claw-back from players, who’ll be bearing real health risks by coming back to work.
In doing so, the owners are only reinforcing the growing mistrust that’s spread throughout the game since the last round of CBA talks, fuelled by the way analytics have upended the business of the game and impacted free agency.
The widespread perception is that clubs are constantly looking for ways to screw players out of money, and the past couple of months have certainly bolstered that narrative.
Ultimately, though, owners can’t have their business sit idle for a year or more, lest their coveted franchise values collapse, and when thinking long-term, that’s their pressure point.
For now, though, they’re going to test the players, who’ll respond with a proposal of their own and test the owners right back, each working strategies for down the road, as everyone locks in on the here and now.